The scarred man sits on the water fountain ledge with his back turned to me. His hair, long and straight, spills down his back. His hand grips the side of the ledge, and he peers into the dark water without speaking.
They say everyone sees something different reflected in those waters.
“What do you see?”
He takes a moment before he responds. “You’re not supposed to say.”
I sit next to him. My hand covers his, as it had done so many times before, in our life together. Our fingers touch—at last, it feels familiar. I glance at the water, see there what I’m supposed to see. I wrestle with the idea of blame—for not seeing it sooner, for allowing myself to forget. As if I could help it, as if anyone can.
“I remember now, you know,” I say. “It’s you. It had always been you.” My first husband, I don’t say, thinking it a cruel descriptor. It says: There is a second one. A living one.
He nods, his back still turned. He knew already, of course.
I even remember his name, now.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I ask. Guilt rests its full weight on my chest, stiff as a tombstone.
“You had to come to the knowledge on your own,” he replies. His voice hollow, receding. “No way around it.”
“I’m sorry I took so long.” Still clinging to the idea of apologies and blame. “There’s still so much I don’t remember.”
He shrugs. “There’s no time, here.”
And yet, he’s waited for me, with no guide to help him back to himself. Waited and waited, for so long. I cannot fathom what it must have been like, waiting for someone in this place, for so long.
I look away from the fountain’s waters, up at the dirty sky, the upside-down trees, the birds flying backwards, spiraling and curving, their wings sharp and oily. I imagine my messages hanging from those roots like rotting fruit, waiting for him to remember who he was and pick them. What had I sent him? I don’t remember.
In the distance, the dead roll their stones.
I watch the man sleep in this bed I share with him now, in this house that is no one’s because the dead have no possessions. Except their stone, perhaps, the thing that hurts the worst when you let go, because it is the thing you least wish to remember.
My hand strokes the side of his head. When he’s asleep, he looks more a shade than ever. I remembered who he is to me a few hours ago; not all of him, not everything, just fragments. I didn’t tell him. I try to recall his name, now, to piece together my knowledge of him, of us together. I trace the delicate dendrites of his scars, tiny ferns of electricity inscribed on his flesh as he died, long ago. That, I cannot forget. Why do we have so little choice in the matter?
I can see beyond the window from where I lie; so many birds. Sometimes they’re red. Sometimes they’re black. Sparrows and pigeons and swallows. They fly only in reverse, as if they’re always going back to where they came from, back to their beginnings, an underground, post-mortem tracing. An accounting.
Their flight paths can be read both ways, as if meaning to say, in their legibility: We were here, once. Where you’re going and where you’re coming from are one and the same.
A wave of vertigo catches me. The room spins like a wheel around me and my head is light. I’m going, going back, back to—I grab hold of myself. The last pieces of what I’m missing fall into place as if raining from the ceiling. I haven’t dreamt since I arrived here, but I remember the man’s dreams: the tree, the water, the fire coming down from the sky. He told me them himself, back when I still had my stone. And though I’ve already let it go, I can still feel its weight, its shape. I cling to its memory, and it clings to me, like a ghost.
The world is quiet. The only sound is the faint flapping of the birds’ wings, like pieces of paper caught in a sudden wind. And that sharp thud every time one of them smashes against the soil in the sky or gets tangled in the trees’ roots.
I decide it has to be done.
I roll my stone all the way to the ocean’s shore. Alone this time. I stare at its waters, the waves that break blackly and then fall back the way they came. I rest my hand on the rock as if patting the head of a beloved pet. In the distance, cargo ships hover on the horizon, like apparitions, carried by the shadowy undertows of this world. What are they carrying, I wonder, and to where? I expect shades to crowd around me, eager to witness the momentousness of my letting go, the lifting of this inexplicable guilt, but they don’t. I came alone, and alone I am left. Only the birds beat their wings along their backwards journeys overhead. I search the root branches above for another message from the land of the living, another gift from my mourning spouse, but there’s nothing.
Finally, I push the stone into the water, hoping the ocean will swallow it the way it did the first time, eager to pull it into its depths. Yet the stone doesn’t sink. It just sits there on the shore, and a wave comes along to carry it, and then another, and the stone starts floating, bobbing up and down, as if it were a buoy. The ocean teases it away with a slow, deliberate receding.
I thought I’d feel relieved, as if a weight has been lifted, but all I feel is this crushing, something inside me thoroughly soaked with the ocean’s black water. A loss.
On the way back to the place I’m slowly coming to call home, I catch myself thinking of my spouse up above. Imagine him, his face ashen, ruined with grief.
Will he move on, as I did before?
A dead bird lies on the ground outside the house. My lover down here meets me at the front steps as I’m still staring at the fallen bird because I try so hard not to stare at him, not to palm his features and weep, mourn him all over again.
“How can it die if it’s already dead?” I ask.
He stands next to me, our shoulders touching. He smells exactly as I remember—clean skin, morning rain, a hint of lemons—and, finally, I can tell.
“It just forgot,” he says. “That’s all.”
The next morning—for lack of a more specific word for the strange light that comes after our hours of restless sleep—we join the other shades in one of the bleached feasts of the Underworld. I poke the rotting food on my plate aimlessly; I have no intention of eating, and nobody else seems to either. But we do drink. We raise our glasses of purple wine and toast the living, then down our libations, eyes half-closed and rimmed with tears. Look at us, I want to say, look at us in our splendid finery and our rich tables—have you ever seen a more lavish company of beggars? I didn’t let go of my gifts at the ocean just as I didn’t let go of my stone. Now, I turn the figurine in my hands under the table, thumbing its smoothness, feeling for a flaw that might retain something of my spouse’s touch. I catch the man eyeing my hands with some of what I think is envy, though why he might feel envious I could not say.
The birds congregate outside during our grief-soaked parties. A woman tells a story soundtracked by their ceaseless chatter: She speaks of time as a rainfall, seeping down from the trees’ roots, over the desert and the city and the cliff, filling our black ocean. People still need mythology, it seems. Death cures so very little.
And yet, I imagine the rain of days pouring from the sky, slowly filling the rooms, the corridors, the spaces in between all these things that were once handcrafted by living hands, that were once cherished by the ones who fell here. So many people, all of them together, staring up at the ceiling, contemplating the dark sky. I imagine all that time, all those years, all those generations spent here, in this place, and still, they do not remember. None of them remember, just as I do not remember.
Back home, the shade is unusually solemn. He sits on the bed, teases the moth in his palm, torturing its tiny wings. Still, it doesn’t fly away, as if resigned to the fate it knows awaits it.
I sit next to the man and take the moth from his hand. I blow on it softly, forcing an escape.
“What’s the point in that?” the man asks, meaning my poor act of mercy. He turns to look me in the eyes. His features are beautiful and familiar: his angular jaw, the sunken cheeks, the too-large eyes that seemed to me always pleading.
Seemed to me? When?
I dismiss the temporal lapse, and yet my hand pinches a stray strand of hair and hooks it behind his ear.
The man reaches for the back of my neck and pulls me close until our lips meet. Though he has no breath, I know his breath as if it were my own.
I fumble with the buttons of his own dress shirt—why must they always bury us in such cruel clothes—strip him to reveal skin etched with a complicated network of root-like scars.
“Lichtenberg figures,” I say without thinking. Scars left behind when a body is struck by lightning.
“How do you know what they’re called?” the man coaxes.
I am taken aback by my own knowledge. “I think I used to be a doctor,” I hear myself say. “In life. I remember treating bodies.” I look at my hands, imagine them holding a scalpel, setting a bone.
He takes them, kisses them, each finger then the palm, the wrist.
Afterwards, he calls me to stand next to him by the window and shows me a pair of people rolling stones outside. They neither speak nor look at one another; they simply walk side by side, idly pushing their stones. The stones roll easily across the grass, smooth and round, one glistening white, the other a darker shade of gray.
“They’re brother and sister, you know,” he says.
“Don’t they recognize each other?” I ask. And don’t they have anyone to guide them, like I do? Guilt curls its slender fingers around a rib at this, and I flinch away from its touch. There’s a connection I’m supposed to make, I know, to something that’s been said earlier, but I don’t. I won’t.
“Not yet,” the man replies.
After that first trip to the ocean, the shade shows me to his house; though, he explains, it does not belong to him just as nothing belongs to anyone, here.
“Nothing belongs to anyone up there either,” I say.
The house is dark and a little cold, with a draft going through it, the source of which I fail to identify. The walls are lined with dead things: dried flowers in vases, small birds preserved in wax, alabaster urns full of ashes, many photographs, black-and-white and mildewed. Between these objects, the naked wall gives the impression of a fluttering, a writhing, and I marvel at this until I realize it’s covered in small, furry insects. “Only moths live in this house,” the shade says.
I approach the wall, as close to the moths as I stand to be. I smell their dusty wings, feel the breeze birthed by the movement of their wings.
The shade joins me. He plucks from the wall a small, mottled one, the size of a thumbnail. He puts it in the middle of his palm and shows it to me. “That one I have to kill every night,” he tells me.
I roll my stone for a long time. My legs never get tired, but something else inside me does, though I have no name for it. I arrange in front of me the gifts I have received: the figurine, a white feather, a scrap of paper with a message too faded to read. “What am I supposed to do with these?” I ask the shade, and after some thought he says he’ll take me to the ocean.
“The ocean?” I echo, not understanding.
“The underground river that is the world has overflowed here,” he explains, “drowning so many things.”
He shows me the way. I carry the gifts in my trouser pockets and roll the stone in front of me, the motion now as familiar and automatic as breathing used to be, as blinking still is. The road that leads down to the ocean is paved with granite, but narrow and uneven. It makes the rolling harder; I feel no tiredness, still. I find that disappointing.
At the end, there’s a long, winding set of stairs we must climb. The shade holds my arm gently and helps me with the stone when the turns are steepest. When we finally arrive at the shore, the ocean spreads before us placidly, wavelessly—a smooth, black surface. There’s no one else on the shore, except that scarred soldier I met in the maze of tunnels when I first arrived. He’s crouching on the sand, cutting open a corpse with a broken blade, searching inside for something. “How did he get a corpse?” I ask my shade, and he says, “One of his gifts,” pointing at the trees above.
The soldier finds what he was looking for; some kind of prize. He pulls out his arm, covered in old blood, and holds his trophy up to the nonexistent sun: a small piece of shell. “For luck,” he tells me. “Good, bad, or otherwise.”
I turn back to my shade.
“Does everyone let go of their stone here, in this ocean?”
“No. Everyone has their own way. Some grind it to dust with their teeth. Some drop it from a cliff,” the man replies.
“I have not seen any cliffs.”
I push the stone into the darkness of the ocean, meaning to cast my past into the depths. I watch the stone start to drift away, but there is a weakness in my knees and I’m already wading into the ocean to retrieve the stone when I realize I don’t want to let it go.
I make it back to the shore, stone rolling in front of me, my trousers wet up to my thighs. The shade stands still, his arms hanging by his sides. “As long as you push that stone around, you will not remember it all,” he says. There’s a harshness to his jaw when he says it, an edge to his voice that I find puzzling.
Why do I remember some things and not others? The most important, perhaps the ones closest to the heart, come back first. And why should guilt stab my navel at this thought, as it does?
“I know,” I say.
On the way back, he doesn’t speak at all. When we reach the fountain, we see a pair of men chase each other around the square, and when one catches the other, they embrace and begin to kiss. Their kiss goes on and on, never-ending.
“Look at them,” I say, not without a twinge of jealousy. “They’ll never break away.”
“You’re right,” he answers.
Once I remember more of my living spouse, the man sits me at the fountain. “Tell me the story of the life you had with this man. Can you remember it?” he asks me.
Of course, I want to say. Of course I remember him. How could I not?
These are the things I remember:
I remember the parties we used to go to. Sex parties and parties where everyone enjoyed odd things like: eating flowers, sticking metal things in our skin like pins or pushing needles through our lips, hanging from the ceiling like bats. Playing dead.
I remember other things, too. My mother and three sisters, who, I discover as I share the memories, I loved very much. My sisters were always weird, afflicted: one, the youngest, thought she was possessed since she was very small, by the spirit of a musician. The middle one ate only sugar and salt, and the oldest one was always awake because she claimed there was someone living inside her head who would pinch her every time she was on the verge of falling asleep.
And I remember writing long, long letters after he.
“After who?” the shade prompts.
“After my.” I stop. I do not remember. Do not remember.
“After what?” he asks again.
I remember visiting a shrine, on a high-altitude city’s plateau, overlooking the ocean. My living spouse was my second husband, but I don’t remember the first.
I tell the man none of that. Instead, I say: “A hand that slipped out of mine.” A pause. “I feel strange. A kind of ringing in the ears, as if I have forgotten how to hear.”
“You’re mourning for yourself,” he says. “For the life you had. It’s normal. Happens to most of us.”
“I think I was old when I died.”
“Older than you are now,” he says, as if he knows. “Yes.”
“What do I look like now?”
He swallows, licks his lips. “Shy and awkward and lacking the confidence you grew into later,” he says, then corrects himself: “Must have grown into later.”
The man shifts closer, and I watch my reflection in his still, black eyes. I see the two of us, together.
Behind us the other shades play games: they roll their stones alone but close together and trying not to touch, they ask each other how to find the ocean and give each other wrong directions. A woman’s braid is caught in the trees’ roots; she hangs in midair, dangling softly in the dead breeze.
We wander for a long time in the complicated sprawl of tunnels and galleries. On the walls, there are amber marks that he touches. I wonder aloud what they are, and he tells me: “I think they’re records,” but he doesn’t say of what. Some of them are large and imposing, others are tiny like the marks of small hands.
The tunnels sometimes open into large rooms, cavernous and lit from the ground up. People inside sit at long, narrow tables, laid with elaborate platters of tasteless food that nobody touches. Some keep their stones beside them, briefly ignored but never forgotten. “What are they doing?” I ask the man.
“Gorging themselves on nothing,” he says.
I shudder at the thought of trying the food, so we move on.
In the next room, monsters clean their weapons, lick blood off their arms and palms. A soldier with a large scar across his face tells me he was burned by a fire when he was a boy and of the rest of his life he doesn’t remember anything but the screams of other soldiers.
“Not your name?” I ask, and he says, “Why, do you remember yours?” And I don’t, I don’t.
There is a small lake in the middle of the room. My guide tells me that, in it, people are drowning. I cannot see them because the lake is muddy and opaque. All around us, the walls are piled with broken furniture and discarded old clothes.
Outside, my first gift waits for me, dangling from the tip of a gnarled root. It’s a small wooden figurine, hand-carved, representing an aquatic creature: a dolphin, perhaps, or a sea lion. It smells faintly of damp soil and rot.
“Who is it from?” this shade of a man asks me.
“My lover, I think,” I say, and in saying it I remember his face. “My spouse.” His smell. The gold of his hair—so different to this man’s. I wonder if he buried that figurine in the soil by my grave, or if he simply deposited it on the tombstone. How long did it take to find its way to me?
The man swallows, and I think I see the corner of his lip draw downwards. “Don’t you receive any gifts?” I ask him, to dispel the solemn air of the moment.
“Not anymore,” he says, looking away. “Not for a long time.” He shrugs. “The only person who would send me gifts is dead now.”
Later, I ask him what is beyond the strange city we stand in, and he says that there is desert where nothing grows, and then there are mountains, and a desert again. I wonder then if the city is one of the many disguises that death assumes: mud, ash, salt. I realize I’m wearing gray trousers and a white dress shirt, which is strange, because I don’t remember how I got dressed in the morning.
It takes me hours to realize these are the clothes they buried me in.
I think, at one point, I see a white bird spin across the air over the city. But it might have only been a ribbon from the long braid of an upside-down woman.
“Who was your guide when you first arrived?” I ask the man, assuming too much, as, I think I always did.
He doesn’t reply. Instead he says that, sometimes, when he dreams, he is visited by a memory of another time. He says that sometimes he’s strolling in a wood of great trees, and thinks that perhaps he’s back in the world. He says he feels the warm sunlight on his skin and hears the rustle of leaves, but when he looks around him, he finds himself alone in a long, white corridor, his mouth full of ashes.
I am surprised that he chooses to tell me all of this, but he does, and afterwards we walk in silence for a long time.
I am underground, or, perhaps, in a cave. The world yawns above me, the cave’s ceiling this new sky. A man is holding out his hand to me. Is he to be my guide? He’s standing next to a water fountain. I think I came out of the black waters of that fountain, but I don’t know for sure, and I’m afraid to mouth the question.
There is a large, round stone in front of me. I pat its surface; it’s warm. I put my arms around it. It feels natural.
I hug the stone to myself. “I don’t remember anything,” I say to the man. His eyes are dark, his hair long, straight. I want to touch it.
“It’s okay,” the man says, and for a moment I think he means my hand on his hair, but he doesn’t. “Just roll the stone.”
“Roll it where?”
“Anywhere you like.”
I look up. Birds circle the ceiling, flying backwards. Trees grow from the sky—no, not trees. Roots. We’re underground.
I turn back to the man.
“Where’s your stone?” I ask. He smiles sadly and touches my cheek, a bold brush of fingers that feels too familiar. His touch leaves my skin cold. He must be a shade, but then, so must I.
“Oh,” he says. “I let go of that old thing so long ago.”
Natalia Theodoridou is the World Fantasy Award-winning and Nebula-nominated author of over a hundred stories published in Nightmare, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, F&SF, and elsewhere. Find him at www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.